Ortiz Cofer’s ‘‘Aunty Misery’’ is a retold Puerto Rican folktale that appears to explain the existence of misery in the world. The story also asserts the value of death. While the tale is Puerto Rican in origin, there is nothing in its content that indicates this. The themes in the story are universal, transcending not only culture but even time and place. For example, the story’s setting is never so much as hinted at, and it is written in such a way that it could take place anywhere. The same is true of the story’s inherent historical context; there are no clues as to when the story takes place, and it really could be set in almost any time period. There are no machines or modern technology referenced. But, on the other hand, there is no mention made of using the manual techniques that were relied upon before the advent of technology. This universality is a hallmark of folktales, many of which seek to explain the existence of natural phenomena through anecdote (a short, often humorous explanatory story) or metaphor (employing one item or event to represent another). These universal themes are communicated more effectively in a nonspecific context.
Folktales additionally feature the personification of natural phenomena, as is certainly the case here. Death, of course, is the most salient example. He appears to Aunty Misery as a tired traveler. His voice is ‘‘dry and hoarse, as if he had swallowed a desert.’’ When he sighs it sounds ‘‘like wind through a catacomb.’’ These descriptive similes are all examples of personification. They are also the only extended descriptive examples in the story. This alerts the reader to Death’s importance as a major figure in ‘‘Aunty Misery.’’ This also reinforces the idea that the story’s main theme pertains to the importance of death. Some of the story’s longest passages are devoted to the discussion of the doctors and undertakers who cannot make a living. It is also notable that the story’s only instance of social commentary appears in this context. When the pharmacists complain of their inability to do their jobs, the narrator comments that ‘‘medicines are, like magic potions, bought to prevent or postpone the inevitable.’’ Thus, the narrator seems to be indicating that the ‘‘inevitable’’ is death and that there is little point in attempting to avoid it. Ironically, the story’s main character does exactly that.
Another striking passage underscoring this theme shows not only that death is important but also that it can be a benevolent force. This is shown when the narrator observes that the elderly people in the world wish to die; they want to be able to go ‘‘to the next world to rest from the miseries of this one.’’ That death is not an end but a means of passage is also asserted in this statement. The elderly do not wish for oblivion but to go ‘‘to the next world.’’ Death’s benevolence is indicated not only in this statement, but also in his personified form. He matter-of-factly informs Aunty Misery of his identity and intention. He agrees to her requests to bring souvenirs from this world (her pears) into the next. In fact, Death not only grants this request but is even persuaded to retrieve the fruit for Aunty Misery out of consideration for her age and frailty.
Certainly, much can be learned about the nature of death in the story, but can anything be learned about the nature of misery? In other words, can ‘‘Aunty Misery’’ be read as an explanation for the never-ending existence of misery in the world? First of all, Aunty Misery is not personified as Death is. All of the descriptions pertaining to him indicate his inherent nature. This is not true of the story’s protagonist. She is never described in any way that indicates that she is miserable or that she is the physical embodiment of misery. Quite the opposite appears to be the case. For instance, when the story opens, Aunty Misery is referred to as an old woman. It is only after the neighborhood children nickname her that she becomes Aunty Misery. In addition, while Aunty Misery is certainly miserly in her covetousness toward her own pear tree, her reaction to the children’s thievery is hardly inappropriate.
Indeed, Aunty Misery’s true nature hardly seems miserable at all. She lives alone but is not lonely. Quite the contrary, she seems to enjoy her solitary nature. When one thinks of the old adage that ‘‘misery loves company,’’ the possibility that the old woman is a personification of misery becomes even more preposterous (unlikely). It would also seem that the personification of misery would not exhibit any worthy traits. Yet, Aunty Misery does show herself to be a kind, caring, considerate, and compassionate woman. She provides exemplary charity to the sorcerer in disguise. Not only does she offer him the shelter he requests but she also feeds him and makes him a bed in the warmest spot in the house. She does all of this without expectation of payment or reward. That Aunty Misery does receive a reward seems to speak for the underlying moral that charity is its own reward, or that good deeds are rewarded.
Aunty Misery also wants nothing more than to live her life in peace; she does not spread unhappiness or discord in her midst (as one might expect of the personification of misery). The punishment she doles out to the children is neither vindictive nor unjust. When the elderly who wish to die are unable to do so, Aunty Misery feels for their plight. When the doctors, pharmacists, and undertakers are destitute because of Aunty Misery’s actions, she shows sympathy for them. She does not want ‘‘to be unfair.’’ Certainly, this trait seems antithetical (opposite) to the idea that Aunty Misery is misery personified. Rather than increase or maintain the misery she has caused, Aunty Misery reduces it by agreeing to free Death. Though she does so in exchange for immortality, Aunty Misery can hardly be faulted for this. And, while the narrator concludes the story by stating that ‘‘so long as the world is the world, Aunty Misery will always live,’’ the language pointedly avoids drawing any parallels between world suffering and Aunty Misery’s existence.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Leah Tieger, Critical Essay on ‘‘Aunty Misery,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010